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April 11, 2009

the great american greed conversation

This right here would be a conversation starter/expander contemplating the role morality plays in our brave strong American business culture.  It's a little bit of unsteady ground here, and it's hard to not sound like either a hippie or a fatcat, so it is approvingly that I link Yglesias' post.

A portion that sums it up quite nicely:

But it’s a sign, I think, of a kind of sickness running through American society that we’ve lost the willingness to just say clearly that ceteris paribus greedy behavior is not virtuous behavior. In the spirit of decency, of course, we recognize that none of us are without sin... But the fact still remains that greedy behavior is not admirable behavior and that, as Krugman says, it’s very unlikely that the “best” young people were going into finance.  And to say that they’re not necessarily good people need not entail that they’re criminals.  Simply the fact that the best people are people who aren’t primarily driven by greed.

I don’t think Barack Obama should orient his policy agenda around that kind of moralizing.  But it’s not an observation we should consider shocking to make in civil society.

I don't think it is a shocking observation.  I think it's a pretty easy jump.  Though I do think that there is an enormous resistance to it, as the over-acquisition of stuff has been idolized right out of the territory of "moral failing".  And I can think of a few friends that would be reluctant to accept the hypothesis of "Greed Is Bad" whole-heartedly.

To play devil's advocate, here are a few defenses against the argument I can gin up.  First, there is the Wal-Mart defense -- "We are not so much as greedy as we are helping people improve their lives with our low low banking fees."  But we all actually have bank accounts with actual banks, so that doesn't survive so much of an examination.  Second, there is the slippery slope exception -- "True, greed is not virtue, but greed exists, and where do you draw the line?"  This is a conversation I think we should have, even though it would be a long one.  But as it relates to questions like, "Is John Thain a virtuous man?", it seems to be more of a stall than a reaction.  And it is only among certain friends that you can answer a question with a question.  And the last defense I can think of is the nihilism defense, which is to say, "Of course they are greedy and there is nothing wrong with that."  That seems the most difficult to refute (because you have to construct a world in which we have moral obligations for the betterment of everyone, which I believe in but could not prove any more than I could tell if light is a wave or a particle).  It does have the weakness that it's drifting towards Ayn Rand territory and thus within throwing distance of ridicule, but ridicule has never deterred an objectivist.

That's what I got.  I think in discussing this issue with my one friend that likes to take to these matters in epistolary fashion, I've said something like, "There is of course a line that can be crossed, when you go from survival-instinct/self-interest to obscene greed, and I'd know the line if I saw it, but I'll be damned if I could explain it."  And I do think that there is utility in a societal awareness of this, because I think it will forestall the eventual pitchforks and torches.

But ultimately, good luck with all that -- I think that the portion of Americans that don't want to have this conversations shout/cry louder than the rest of us.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:13 AM

corrections 4.11.09


• Yesterday (and sporadically over the past months) I've referred to my new office as "Panera's Bread".  Inaccurate!  It is not their bread at all; it is the name of their bread -- Panera Bread!  Confusingly, Panera Bread comes in forms resembling more ordinary bread you may be familiar with, like baguettes and bagels.  And croissants!  But all are made not of bread, but Panera Bread!  As is the wi-fi.

• On my Twitter feed this week, I incorrectly labeled the foreign nationals who organized protests against their government via Twitter.  So, the "Moldavians" who are revolting.  It is the Moldovans who are truly revolting.

• In retrospect, I've decided that all those times I misspelled "Giuliani" over the years was volitional and means something, something sinister and dark.  Wait, don't tell me.

• I have more often than not described our current economic situation as "the Great Recession" -- my bad!  It is actually the "Temporary Spontaneous Interruption of the Rightful Upward Flow of Capital".  And the Dow is up something-something percent over the past month, so can you please leave rich people alone again??  They cannot hear you b/c their ears are clogged with money!!

• I can too fit the entire croissant (made of Panera) in my mouth.

Posted by mrbrent at 8:33 AM

April 10, 2009

ok, politico sucks

You know how everyone has been writing (slow Internet, sorry for lack of supporting links) that Politico is, if not outright bad, guilty of grasping at histrionic straws in order to generate cheap clicks?  I am now agreeing.

Current headline of a story (also splashed all over Yahoo!, thx to their content partnership deal):

Rove: Biden a 'blowhard' and a 'liar'

Actual quote from the actual story:

"He’s a serial exaggerator.  If I was being unkind I would say he’s a liar, but it’s a habit he ought to drop,” Rove said on FOX News.

Technically, Rove did not call the Veep a liar -- too many layers of qualification (more than one).  Did Rove talk smack on Biden?  Yes.  But to pull "LIAR!" from that is what we call unscrupulous.

And thanks, Politico, for putting me in the position of sticking up for Karl Rove.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:14 AM

howard beale was crazy

I've been using this as a cultural shorthand for years without even thinking about the full context of it:
It's worth remembering the fictional newsman of the moment, Howard "I'm mad as hell" Beale from Network, was actually mentally ill.

Dude.  I am so very guilty of ignoring the greater context of that one, of citing the Howard-Beale moments approvingly and not with some amount of trepidation.  I must recalibrate.

The quote is from a Gawker item on how Glenn Beck did some borderline schizo thing on his TV show that is supposed to provoke right-ons from his fans and OUTRAGE (and ink) from people like me.  Didn't watch it; don't plan on it.  Let the doughy millionaire poison minds on his own time for once -- today is Good Friday, not Cynically Harness Populist Paranoia Into Mansions Friday.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:46 AM

hello people of the lehigh valley

The chances of me getting out of this Panera's somewhere in Pennsyltucky without commenting on the throngs of consumers filling the booths at 9a on Good Friday are pretty slim, so let's get it out of the way:

No matter how much time I spend outside New York City, and no matter how much I feel less divorced than most from the rest of the country, and sit my ass down in front of my wife's computer at this Panera's not 90 miles away from the NYC and realize that I am wrong, that my down-ness with the rank and file is an empty boast, and that when these people realize that I am writing about them they will hunt me down like they would hunt down a space alien or an American Idol.

There is no moral frequency of ickiness/upstandingness that I'm picking up.  It's just a world I'm no longer familiar with.  Business meetings of what look like junior high school teachers, the only word audible, repeatedly: "clients".  Three sets of mother/daughters, the mothers in their Golden Years, whispered arguments over Dad and retirement accounts.  Contrast with the sole moms with the kids, loading up on the caffeine and the sugar before the day off school.  The odd loner, with the thought visible on his face, "Am I allowed to stay?  Is this what passes for a public place now?"

Plus also folks buy the breadstuffs around these parts like they were hoarding gold.  I alone eat glutenous products in my household, and I'm becoming aware that there is only so much one can wisely eat.  Down here they mix it in their coffee and their cocktails.

Sorry, man and women of Panera's Bread, for the whole secret spy routine; I love you all very much and keep consuming the entertainment product.  When I imply that you're freaking my shit out, what I'm really saying is that I'm freaking my shit out.

Posted by mrbrent at 8:54 AM

April 9, 2009

stephanie meyer did what?

I guess this shouldn't be alarming.  The people gotta buy something to read, and if that happens to be the same thing, well, then, we remain at, "Hurrah for Reading!"

But yeah, Stephanie Meyer accounted for 16% of all U.S. book sales in Q1 of 2009.  That would be "Twilight" Stephanie Meyer, in case you live in a cave (or have not stepped foot into a bookstore in the last twelve months.)

I haven't read any of her books, and I got some loved ones that vouch for them, but I remain alarmed: I didn't imagine that any entertainment industry could be so easily dominated.

Though, if you think of it, some measurable percent of moviegoers were watching "Fast and the Furious N+1" last week, and the same goes for TV viewers and "Dancing With The Stars".

Hey, now I'm alarmed and depressed!

Posted by mrbrent at 4:29 PM

nothing's more interesting than a jurisdictional dispute

Here's a take From Wired's Threat Level on the story of hackers monkeying with our electrical grids much more interesting than hating on Texas:
The unspoken lesson here is obvious: Chinese Superhackers Are Our Superiors.  No, wait.  That's not it.  I know ...  Only the intelligence agencies are equipped to protect us from foreign cyber attacks.

It's an unusually opportune time for this revelation, since the NSA is at this very moment jockeying to take over cyber security from DHS, which lacks the wholesale warrantless-wiretapping capabilities needed to detect Chinese hackers.  What a lucky coincidence of timing that this exciting, if uncheckable, story should emerge now.

The implication is that the unnamed government sources who have propagated the story might have some motive more pressing that information wanting to be free.  Which is usually the case, right?  I guess sometimes I forget to think through to the next level.

I am still shocked, though, that Texas gets its own grid, especially in light of Texan nonsense like this.

[Via RobboMills, plus also Lady Crumpet.]

Posted by mrbrent at 12:26 PM

pirates are also a baseball team in pittsburgh

I've said it once and I'll say it a hundred times: as much as I was a fan of the concept of "pirates" a long time ago, I am no longer, and the passage of time rewards me only with continued cultural references to pirates.

And you'd think that actual pirates, with no cutlasses and no buccaneer boots, just guys with motor boats, an automatic weapon, a clip or two of ammo and not much to lose would dispel the aura and then no one would ever say, "Arrrrr!" again.  But no, not the case.

I don't care if it's the deep concern of Sen. Clinton or the "Matey" jokes of Glenn Beck -- pirates?  Played out.

May the U.S. Navy remove this topic from the public consciousness with their superior firepower and two or three SEALs.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:06 AM

April 8, 2009

texas has its own grid?

This very interesting article is on how our electrical grid has been compromised by hackers -- not that anything software- based disruption has happened yet, but evidence has been found by U.S. intel services that Kilroy had in fact been there.

But even more disturbing than thoughts of the fragility of our system of sweet magical electricity delivery is this factoid buried therein:

The U.S. electrical grid comprises three separate electric networks, covering the East, the West and Texas.

Whoa!  Not for nothing, but since when does Texas get its own grid?  It seemed like a nice place the few times I've been down there, but the thought that the bad-guy hackers could plunge the entire nation into darkness while Texas is still enjoying 48 ounce steaks in the full glory of electrical lighting just seems not fair.

Posted by mrbrent at 2:34 PM

rush limbaugh gobsmacked into confused silence

The really fascinating aspect of this small modest take-down of Rush Limbaugh by a Republican caller that's getting passed around today is that it's actually not as modest as it looks at first.

The caller seems an affable fellow, a conservative, but piqued at the self-aggrandizing tactics of Excellence in Broadcasting.  And Rush gives him a good two minutes to make his points, and seems stunned into actually letting the caller talk over Rush's protestations.

Rush gets his licks in at the end, but that's the prerogative of the host: hang up or pot down the volume, and then proceed interrupted against a silent target that cannot disagree.  And the licks that Rush got in were boilerplate at best -- "You're a big dummy!  And stupid!"  He managed to skirt entirely any substance of what the caller was saying -- basically, that Rush's buffoonery doesn't help the cause, and that defending torture is offensive to people who've actually worn the uniform.

I'm skating pretty close to concern trolling, but if Rush is good at anything it's shouting down someone on his own show, and in this example he did not.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:37 AM

the matrix was ten years ago

David Forbes writing for Coilhouse notes that, as long as we're thinking about what happened how many years ago, it was roughly ten years ago that "The Matrix" was released.  Yeah, you went and saw it, and then you went out and bought a DVD player so you could watch it with digital clarity in your den.

I do remember this clearly as well -- I was trapped in LA with one more day to kill before my flight back, so I holed up in a hotel that had only cheapness and easy navigation to LAX to recommend it.  I watched a little NBA playoffs and quickly was bored silly, so I got in the rental and drove around until I found a movie theater and decided to see that movie everyone had been talking about.  And it blew the top of my head clean off.  I'd always at least been aware of sci fi and its recurrent themes, but "The Matrix" with its clean (and derivative) messianic storyline and supercrisp (and derivative) visual style opened up these certain imaginative worlds in a way that they hadn't yet been opened, despite a childhood of "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" and 30,000 comic books.

As Forbes puts it:

I think the word “zeitgeist” is overused, but The Matrix captured it perfectly, becoming a technological vision of Gnostic liberation that caught on like wildfire.  It carried within it that ancient appeal, at least as old as the Hymn of the Pearl, if not even older: The accepted world is a lie.  Wake up and become who you are meant to be.

There is a certain naivite at the heart of that, no matter how cynical it seems, but it's a little more open-armed than Campbell's journey of the hero, so it hooked me hard.

And that would be ten years ago, so update your nostalgia accordingly.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:47 AM

April 7, 2009

but doughy millionaire glenn beck is still worse

OK, so, there's going to be posts about Glenn Beck here.  I was fixing to start writing this and had a twinge of guilt -- if Glenn Beck is such a nothing, then why waste words?  Well, he's a nothing that back a couple of years ago was notable only for his Father Coughlin appeal and his lack of traction on CNN.  (And he suborned an in-law of mine, smart freakin' kid, and that made it personal for me.)  But now that he's Fox News and all tears and LCD populist and ratings, he is not just fair game and not just low-hanging fruit.  His nihilistic appeal to the frustrated, his calculated tears, are a threat, a temptation to inspire folk who do not know better to do bad things.  So the risk of me boring you nice people is outweighed by the potentiality, in my thinking.

I'll come back to this, I'm sure.

But, hey, enough of my usual overlong intro, let's you and him fight!

Michael Savage is also beneath contempt, if not more so, but he does not have the advantage of charisma that Beck has.  So if them two assholes are locked into some honor-fight, who wins?  Us.

Posted by mrbrent at 8:48 PM

spree-killing and its motivations

Further to the story of spree-killer Richard A. Poplawski, the quiet, kept-to-himself survivalist gun-collector, finally his murder of three Pittsburgh cops is starting to be attributed to something other than a dispute over a dog, as evidenced by this morning's New York Times story headlined "Man Accused in Pittsburgh Killings Voiced Racist Views Online".  I would prefer the characterization of "black helicopter tinfoil hat asshole idiot", but that's probably why I'm not reporting for the NYT.

It just seems to me that the motives of the recklessly-armed are pertinent to the rest of us, news-wise.  And I want to sidestep any discussion of the relationship between Poplawski and right-wing media personalities -- Glenn Beck is already hittin' it pretty hard and it looks like he doesn't need my help.

Posted by mrbrent at 2:51 PM

kal penn: we approve

Actor walks away from television and movie career for job in public service?  That's certainly something you don't see everyday, especially considering how lucrative a television/movie career is (really really lucrative).  And, on the other hand, considering how a White House job is probably not as exciting as "The West Wing" made it look.

Plus also, this is Kumar we're talking about.  Just by having played Kumar, Kal Penn is somewhat of an icon, and when your icons start taking jobs in the White House then that becomes an Event of Generational Significance!  Or at least a hook that everyone can hang a post or a sort article on.

Nevertheless: we approve.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:19 AM

igniting the internet

One of these days, the Internet will actually catch fire, and then every blogger and other miscellaneous copy-generator that ever used the phrase "is igniting/has ignited the Internet" is going to feel like such the jerk.

The fire will start on some quiet hacker board and spread immediately to the porn sites.  Then it'll get slash-dotted and put a 4channer's nose out of joint -- no lulz for you.  Slowly it will get Tumblred back and forth like a fiery shuttlecock and ultimately land in the lap of one of Mick Denton's content farmers.  Xeni will leap in slo-mo: "Noooooo!"  But by then, it will be too late -- no amount of Digging or Tweeting will be able to stop it.  Whole neighborhoods of blogs evacuated; millions of dollars of whuffie destroyed.  Facebook burnt to the ground.  (OK, so it's not all bad.)

And yet tomorrow there will be some yutz yammering about how Snuggies are "igniting the Internet".  Sorry, yutz, but the destruction of everything we know in digital flames?  Really?  Is that what you mean?

Plus also: Snuggies?  No they're not.

Posted by mrbrent at 7:24 AM

April 6, 2009

it's like serving the visibly intoxicated

Speaking of the increasingly violent rhetoric referenced in the immediately previous post, this is an excellent catch by David Waldman of, as he puts it, a story punching a television journalist in the face and passing unnoticed.

The best friend of one of the recent spree killers (how to keep track?) is being interviewed, by at least two reporters, and skips "he was quiet and kept to himself" and jumps right to:

He just believed in our right to bear arms.  He believe that hard economic times were going to put forth gun bans and that sort of thing.  He basically believed in what our forefathers had put before us, and was being distorted by the Zionist-controlled government, and he didn’t believe in that.

The point that Waldman makes is that the reporters to whom these words are being spoken are doing us a great disservice by letting them pass without so much as a, "PS, what that dude said is insane and unsupported by fact."  And it is a disservice; by failing to react, the whackadoo anti-Zionist survivalism speak gets implicitly verified and confirmed as fact and not fantasy.  And that would not be a good thing.

And not to be petty about it, but I don't recall a spate of postal tree-huggers shooting up NRA rallies or Chambers of Commerce back during the long dark eight years of the Bush Administration.  Maybe that's a cheap shot, but it's also a shoe that fits.

I wouldn't go so far as to demand that someone alter their speech for my (or society's) benefit, but let's at least agree that trying to score political points by peppering the rhetoric when calls for revolution and blithe black-helicopter-asides has a certain cost in innocent blood.  Either own your words or eat them.

Posted by mrbrent at 1:59 PM

sad answer to orphan questions 4.6.09

I was thumbing through stats and noticed that, in the span of five days, three visitors have landed here searching for the phrase "how to electrify bird feeder".  That was a head-scratcher.  Total recall left me years ago, but I didn't have memory of writing about electrifying bird feeders.

So I poked around and found it -- it's a post not about electricity so much as it is about a par-for-the-course knuckleheaded email forward comparing immigration with the overpopulation of birds attracted by a birdfeeder, which, as you know is the whole problem with bird feeders, freakin' freeloading birds!

There is nothing in the source forward about electrifying the bird feeder, which makes it odd that I decided to look into it this morning, because it seems that the current rhetoric is definitely edging towards electrifying the birdfeeder, metaphorically.

But, as long as I'm here, in case the searchers are actually looking for ways to electrify a birdfeeder (and for the purpose of installing little floorlamps and tiny televisions, nothing nefarious), here is a sad answer to that orphan question:

Um, have you tried an extension cord?  They work pretty well.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:35 AM

April 5, 2009

my how the decade and a half creeps up

The fact that Kurt Cobain died fifteen years ago today should prompt a healthy serving of "God I'm old", but let's get real: "God I'm old" is such a luxury, a plateau only achieved by managing not to die.

Sure, fifteen years ago is a long time ago, and I can still remember being behind the counter in the bookstore when the news somehow came in (remember, the Internet was still exclusively for MIT grads back then), many tears from the co-workers, generally feeling of generational betrayal from the affinity group.  And yeah, that's how we felt, on our porches, in the one bar -- we were needlessly introspective back before it became lucrative.  Strange in hindsight that we all intuited a silly suicide as a watershed event, but there we were, and here we are now, most of us.

God I'm old.  But, considering the alternative, fuckin' right on.

Posted by mrbrent at 7:49 PM